The National Football League owners finally closed a deal to end the lockout by a 31-0 vote. Under the conditional agreement, the 18-game season proposed by the league has been dropped and the regular season at 16 games per team stays. The agreement also reduces offseason workouts for players and restricts hitting in some practices.
To be sure, players are eager to gear up and start the season. Training camp is scheduled to start next week. And players will be permitted to begin reporting to team facilities as soon as Saturday.
But in the back of their minds, there will be a bit of apprehension. The risks of the season are high. On one hand, there’s the possibility of image-damaging scandals for the handful of players who can’t resist playing harder off the field than on. But that’s nothing new and a cost of doing business in most professional sports.
The real new threat looming is the widening perception that football is unsafe at any speed. Such concerns always shadowed high school football. Now the NFL must address the issue as never before, which has been evident throughout the labor negotiations. While safety was a priority bone of contention during the talks, it is by no means certain that the issue has been resolved.
For example, the tried and true tradition of two practices a day (”two-a days”) was on the table and addressed in the labor agreement. But will the resulting reduction in workouts sufficiently reduce exposure? Not quite.
“Even though they are reducing the risk of injury to a certain degree, it will be impossible to eliminate risks such as striking the turf with a helmet or the cumulative effects of athletes sustaining back-to-back or multiple concussions over a lifetime,” said sports medicine surgeon Fred McAlpin, D.O.
Medical research and stats paint a bleak picture. Esquire.com reports that brain-related injuries are the most common specified type of injury in NFL games. According to the Associated Press, the number of concussions in the NFL in 2010 jumped 20 percent from 2009, and more than 30 percent from 2008.
Legislators are taking note as well. On January 4, 2011, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) requested that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate “misleading safety claims and deceptive practices” among helmet manufacturers. In a letter, Udall criticized Riddell, the official helmet manufacturer of the NFL, for claiming that its popular helmet model decreases concussion risk by 31 percent.
Seventy-five former players filed a lawsuit against the NFL this week, alleging the league concealed information about the danger of concussions for decades. The suit alleges that the NFL knew, as early as the 1920s, of the harmful effects of concussions and concealed that information from players, coaches, trainers, and the public until June 2010.
According to the complaint, the NFL and other defendants “have known that multiple blows to the head can lead to long-term brain injury, including memory loss, dementia, depression and (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and its related symptoms.” The lawsuit also lists Riddell as a defendant.
While NFL spokesman Greg Aiello states the league plans to “vigorously” contest any such claims related to this issue, the case sheds light on the likelihood of increased liability for the NFL and other sports franchises in the near future.
Like it or not, the concussion issue is here to stay. It will continue to be a hot-button issue for the league and players for years to come.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission’s (CPSC) newly launched site, SaferProducts.gov, will likely increase exposure to negligence and products liability lawsuits for organizations like the NFL and other sporting goods manufacturers. As consumers become savvier and potential jurors increasingly aware, defendants will find soon themselves in the red zone with no time for another play.